Arts and Culture

Shani Gilchrist



701 CCA’s Columbia Open Studios makes the Capital City a destination for art

Posted 4/4/2013 6:31:00 PM

If you know me, you’ve heard me say it before … South Carolina is a progressive hotbed for the visual arts. This was abundantly clear recently when I attended the third incarnation of 701 CCA’s Columbia Open Studios. This is an exciting weekend in Columbia when artists open up their workspaces to the public, providing opportunities for people to see a creative process that often remains behind closed doors.

This year 58 local artists participated in the event, which in 2012 saw more than 10,000 visits to studios around the city. The weekend kicked off with a preview party at the 701 CCA in the historic 701 Whaley building, which was a night of music, art, and fun … all celebrating the vibrant creative community in Columbia.

This was the first Columbia Open Studios experience for Sheldon Paschal, who just took the job as 701 CCA’s executive director six weeks before the event kicked off. We had a chat on the phone the day of the party, and she told me about her excitement for the weekend. “With this being the first Columbia Open Studios I’ve ever experienced,” she told me, “seeing the artwork that’s out there is second only to meeting the artists. I grew up in Columbia, but more with the performing arts community. When I came back and took this job it opened up a whole new world of local art to me.”

The attendance for the weekend increased by 150 percent in 2012, showing that the region is taking notice of the varied visual arts talent scattered throughout Columbia. “The support is huge and can grow so much more,” Paschal says. “What I love about CCA is that it really has a unique exhibition base. These smaller organizations are on the front lines of making Columbia a destination for experiencing art.”

One of the people credited for making Columbia a visual arts destination is Wim Roefs, who for the past five years was 701 CCA’s founding volunteer executive director. I’ve known Wim for years and have watched him closely as he acts as an activist and advocate for contemporary artists. I caught up with him at the preview party and asked him a few questions about this year’s Open Studios weekend. He told me that it’s been very exciting to watch people return each year to their favorite artists, and add a few new interests as they return to the event. “Over the years this has become an event that becomes a marker,” he told me. “Every year it just builds, both in terms of artist participation and the audience. In these two days you have the opportunity to just see a boatload of art, which is an idea that’s attractive to people traveling to Columbia. It’s a great way to spend a weekend in Columbia.”

One artist who enjoys a great deal of repeat visitors during Columbia Open Studios is Christian Thee. A fixture on the Columbia social scene, Thee is known as a consummate entertainer and brilliant artist. With a background that spans the areas of interior design, painting, set design, optical illusions and more, it is no great wonder that his fans jump at the opportunity to see his studio and home.

“Last year I was amazed that 500 people were here,” he told me. “I had to hire staff to direct traffic.” Thee, who is a past recipient of the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award, South Carolina’s highest official recognition for excellence in the arts, has a home that is a testament to his busy and creative mind. Visitors were treated a guided tour that included trompe l’oeil murals, sketches of Broadway sets, and fantastical yet oddly realistic paintings of animals who seemed to watch their every move. I met Thee a number of years ago through mutual friends, but had no idea of the extent of his creative life until I attended this tour.

I also stopped at Laura Spong’s studio in Vista Galleries 80808. Spong has been concentrating on geometric abstraction and contemporary painting for a number of years in Columbia. She has participated in Columbia Open Studios for the past three years.

“I love having people coming through and sharing their ideas,” she told me. “I’ve never painted any other way than I do now, and back in the day, people didn’t understand the concept of abstract art when they would see my work.” Now, thanks to the wealth of events promoting Columbia’s visual artists, more people understand and enjoy her work. Spong is a pillar in Columbia’s art community. While she stays busy painting, she is also constantly rallying other artists and the public to actively participate in the arts scene.

Another rallying cry is coming from Carlisle Street in the Melrose Heights neighborhood of Columbia. I stopped in to say hello to the artists at Studio Carlisle, where they were graciously greeting visitors with hors d’oeuvres and wine. A few years ago the artists who would form this group met in an art class. As they honed their techniques and media, Julia Moore, Kevin Smith, Marian Soule, Page Morris, Alice King, Chappy Manning and Cami Hutchison decided to come together to work and sell out of a studio. Thus, Studio Carlisle was born, and the short street has become a creative hotbed for artists, designers and other creative professions. The fun group brings a welcoming air to this section of Columbia, and their encouragement of each other is contagious. In their space you can find oil paintings and watercolors to suit almost every taste.

These are just a few of the many artists welcoming visitors into their workspaces during this annual event. Every year more artists join the fun and the word spreads outside of Columbia that this is an event worth traveling for.